A road to nowhere
When Colin O'Neil decided to buy a new caravan he never imagined it would
lead to financial disaster, poor health and a three-year ongoing battle to
O'Neil says he purchased the $80k van in 2014 after seeing the model at a caravan and RV show. He'd recently retired and he and his wife wanted to
upgrade to a new van for their holiday to WA. They were keen on a van they
saw with an en suite and washing machine and were promised to have the van
they liked manufactured and delivered in time.
A caravan being towed after a gas explosion
O'Neil says the first red flag was when they went to pick up the van and
were told there was no washing machine and that it would be fitted at a
later date. The couple took the van anyway and headed off on their first
Within days they noticed that the floor was wet and quickly discovered the
van was letting in water as it was poorly sealed.
Before they could think about the leaks, O'Neil says the electrics "packed
it in" while they were travelling in South Australia. He phoned what he had
been told was a 24/7 support line for roadside assistance but says the
number didn't exist.
After calling the manufacturer directly he was then told he'd have to take
the van to Alice Springs for repairs. When neither repairer there was
suited to caravan repairs he was then told to take the van to Geraldton in
WA. It was there O'Neil says the repairer told him that his "new van" was
more likely to be over a year old with fittings inside that were older
Back in Sydney O'Neil contacted Fair Trading NSW for advice and said that
every attempt to speak to the manufacturers was thwarted. Eventually he
took his case to an NCAT (NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal) hearing where
the manufacturer agreed to repair the van in a few weeks and provide O'Neil
with a loan van.
O'Neil says the repairs took months not weeks and the loan van never
materialised. When he finally got his van back he says the electrics
and the brakes started to play up again and leaking continued to plague the
van. The door to the van was also faulty and O'Neil said he had to avoid
turning left too hard when driving as the brakes would lock up.
O'Neil then took the (still faulty) caravan to Darwin to live in while he
took a job for a few months. Not long after he arrived he had a massive
heart attack and was airlifted back to Sydney. His family then had to
organise to bring the van back to Sydney.
Three years since O'Neil bought his 'new' van he says it is now sitting in
his front garden, completely unusable and he is still out of pocket. He
says despite all his efforts and the tribunal finding, he's still
received no compensation or any offer of a refund or replacement. He says
his only option is to take the matter back to NCAT but is unsure if he can
afford the time and money. (He says his first NCAT hearing cost him over a
thousand dollars and weeks of his time.)
O'Neil says he's just lost heart battling for justice. "All we wanted was
a holiday. I wanted to retire and enjoy my time – instead I'm left in debt
and stressed and with three years of wasted time fighting for my rights,
yet the company that did this to me is still trading."
"This is why so many people like me with dodgy vans just give up – it takes
so much time, they get the runaround and they end up selling the van and
trying to get back some of their money and then that problem van ends up
getting sold to someone else. The fact is my van never worked properly from
the beginning – it still looks good on the exterior but the reality is that
it's a deathtrap.
Tracy Leigh set up her Facebook group Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus after
she says she experienced serious problems within hours of buying a brand
new $72k van in 2015 and is still chasing a resolution. Her page now has
more than 16,300 members and continues to grow as more unhappy owners seek
advice on what to do with their lemon vans.
Leigh says she's been overwhelmed by the stories she's heard about
severely defective camper trailers, caravans and RVs. And according to her,
price makes no difference when it comes to quality. "You can pay over $100k
and still get a lemon," she says.
A two-year-old caravan being towed after suspension failure
And where do the problems stem from? She describes the industry as being a
"It is not regulated, it's self-certifying and self-accredited. There have
also been allegations of organised crime involvement, standover tactics and
death threats. The industry acts as if they are a law unto themselves,
which they are because no government agencies are taking much notice and
those that do, take months and sometimes years to investigate."
And despite the best efforts of many unhappy owners looking to remedy their
situation via the Australian Consumer Law, Leigh says she has seen little
"To the best of my knowledge, not one RV company has been prosecuted for
any breaches of any laws, in spite of substantial evidence being supplied
to the ACCC, consumer affairs and other regulators such as for electricity,
gas and vehicle standards."
A growing industry, but at what cost?
Former caravan repairer Barry Davidson agrees with Leigh that the
multibillion-dollar industry needs a complete overhaul. Davidson, who
describes himself as an industry veteran, has built and sold caravans and
also ran one of Australia's biggest repair companies in Queensland for over
He says the industry has gone from a couple of well established and
well regarded manufacturers 20 years ago to hundreds of small companies
jumping on the caravan manufacturing bandwagon today. He says as
caravanning continues to grow in popularity, combined with a lack of
regulation, "any idiot with a glue gun and a screw gun can set up shop and
call themselves a caravan manufacturer".
And thanks to the deluge of new manufacturers entering the market,
competition for sales is tough so there are plenty of corners cut in the
manufacturing process in order to compete on price. In fact Davidson was so
alarmed by some of the dodgy work he'd seen at his repair business he
created the 'Rogues Gallery' on a popular online caravan forum which is a
horror show of water damage, broken chassis, severely overweight vans,
dangerous electrics and more, all on relatively new vans.
Dodgy vans on the road
Colin Young, a retired engineer and manager of the Caravan Council ofAustralia, says he's haunted by the thought of how many unsafe vans are on
the road. He says he's aware of a number of serious incidents in the recent
past and says that for every major accident involving a caravan there are
probably another 100 more that involve jackknifing and near misses due to
poorly constructed and overweight vans being driven by inexperienced
"So many of these vehicles are unsafe and are not fit to be on the roads,
yet they are. If these were cars there would be uproar."
So just how is it that so many lemons make it onto the road?
A self-regulated industry
While most of us couldn't just set up shop making and selling cars – when
it comes to caravans it's possible. Despite Australian design rules set by
Vehicle Standards it appears there's an issue around just how much
independent oversight there is to ensure that manufacturers are complying.
Under the Motor vehicle standards act, light trailers (this generally
includes caravans and RVs) under 4.5 tonnes are currently "self
certifying". When we contacted the Department of Infrastructure and
Regional Development, which oversees vehicle standards, they expanded on
this. A spokesperson said that road trailers (which includes
caravans) that don't exceed 4.5 tonnes may be supplied via two different
- Trailers not exceeding 4.5 tonnes are supplied under the legislative
arrangement called Vehicle Standards Bulletin No. 1 (VSB1). If a manufacturer complies with the prescribed requirements of VSB1, the
manufacturer is permitted to fit a trailer plate under s.14A(1) of The
Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 (the Act) and supply the trailer to the
- Where a trailer's design is unable to meet the requirements of VSB1, the manufacturer must seek approval under the Act to supply to market. In
general terms, this means the manufacturer will need to demonstrate full
compliance (via an application through the Road Vehicle Certification
System) with all applicable Australian Design Rules (ADRs) and if approved
will receive written approval to supply that vehicle type to the market.
So why is the process so different to that of motor vehicles?
A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure and Development says
that the certification process for motor vehicles is well suited to
mass-produced vehicles. However, light trailers (which includes vans) are
generally custom-made so the approval process is not as suitable.
Wet rot in the body of the caravan due to poor sealing and joining – a common and expensive repair issue for owners
"For example, a consumer may purchase a custom-made caravan and under the
type approval process this may not be cost effective due to the high cost
of additional testing required to modify the existing type approval," he
However, the owners and industry experts we spoke to say the current system
just isn't enough.
"It's a case of 'tick a box'," says Leigh. "There are design rules but I
doubt they are being followed, and there's no enforcement, no spot checks –
currently these are not being enforced in any way, and at the same time
there are too many small, inexperienced companies that don't have the
knowledge to certify."
Manufacturers behaving badly
Caravan repairer Barry Davidson says that when it comes to honouring
repairs under warranty there are few caravan manufacturers he would trust
"They can say they provide a warranty but when it comes time to make a
claim, it's a different game."
He says that while his company does a huge amount of repairs technically
under warranty, they now bill the owner for the cost of the work and it's
then up to the owner to try and recoup the money themselves, usually with
While we were researching this story we were contacted by Jason (not his real name), a plumber who
has worked in the caravan industry for more than 10 years. He said while he
was happy to speak about the issues in the industry he didn't feel safe
enough to identify himself in the article.
He says that poor manufacturing processes are rife. "While there are design
rules and compliance regulation it's not enforced. Manufacturers know that
so they will constantly push the boundaries. There are unlicensed people
doing the work and it's signed off without being checked properly."
Jason says the current auditing process is a joke. "You get prior warning
before they visit and when I worked for certain manufacturers I'd be told
to not show the auditors certain vans because it was clear that they would
not pass the audit. It was completely deliberate."
While he says certain trade work is regulated more rigorously in some
states (such as electrics or plumbing) it's not in others.
"With plumbing where there weren't any checks, I know of one van owner who
had waste water from the toilet being pumped into the fresh water tank. It
wasn't picked up as a fault and was only discovered when the guy and his
family kept getting sick."
Jason says the biggest issue with the current state of manufacture is that
the regulation isn't done as a whole or by any independent body.
"Caravans are not regulated as caravans – they are classified with trailers
via the vehicle safety standards which doesn't help as most of the design
rules relate to the externals, brakes [and] lights. It doesn't cover what's
inside including electrics, plumbing [and] cabinetry."
Consumer rights – good in theory, hard in practice
Under the current consumer laws the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) gives examples of what might be
considered a major failure. A major failure to comply with the consumer
guarantees is when:
A reasonable consumer wouldn't have bought the item if they'd known about
the full extent of the problem. For example, no reasonable consumer would
buy a new caravan with so many recurring faults that the caravan has spent
more time off the road than on it because several repairers have been
unable to solve the problem.
If your situation appears to suit the ACCC's definition of a major failure,
then according to the Australian Consumer Law you should be entitled to a
replacement or a refund.
We contacted the ACCC for comment on this issue. A spokesperson told CHOICE
that they do not comment on complaints nor do they break complaints down by
Electrical wiring perforated by staples and screws during manufacture
NSW Fair Trading says that since January 1 2016 it has received 393
complaints and 1112 enquiries about new and used caravans. A spokesperson said that complaints about the purchase of caravans mostly
related to defective, unsatisfactory goods, warranties and refunds, while
complaints about the repair of a caravan relate to repairs maintenance,
defective work, and unsatisfactory/non-performance.
In Queensland the Office of Fair Trading has received 92 complaints about
caravans in the last financial year. And in 2016 Victoria Consumer Affairs
received 107 enquiries relating to campervans and 306 enquiries relating to
trailers and unpowered caravans.
The spokesperson from NSW Fair Trading says, "Under
the motor dealers and repairers legislation, a caravan has no dealer
guarantee attached to it when purchased. This means the dealer is not
required by this legislation to repair, or make good any defect which may
exist or occur with the caravan. Consumers buying a caravan from a licensed
dealer, however, are covered under the Australian law."
However, as lemon caravan owner Colin O'Neil says, "The consumer laws in
this country are good but are no good if they aren't enforced."
O'Neil has been in protracted discussions with NSW Fair Trading, taking his
matter to the NSW Civil and Administrative tribunal. Yet after three years
he says he still has an unroadworthy van and is out of pocket to the tune
of $80,000 plus expenses.
Tracy Leigh says that despite the best efforts of many lemon caravan owners, few are satisfied with their experiences with the current consumer laws.
"Consumers are being ripped off on a daily basis and regulators such as the
ACCC and consumer affairs will do nothing to enforce the Australian
Consumer Law. This leaves consumers having to go to court, at a severe
Erin Turner, CHOICE head of campaigns and policy, says there's plenty of
work to be done when it comes to making our consumer laws work better for
caravan owners with a problem. "When something goes wrong with a product,
consumers should have confidence that they'll get a fair fix. This clearly
isn't happening for people stuck with a lemon caravan. Governments across
Australia need to work together to amend the consumer law so that it's
clear that anyone who has to deal with multiple minor product failures has
the option to get a refund or replacement."
Where to next?
While the various people we spoke to about this issue have different ideas
about how the industry can be improved, all agree it is a serious issue.
Some have called for a Royal Commission into the industry, or a class
action. Others such as Tracy Leigh believe there should be specific lemon
laws to better facilitate the refund and repair process, while others
say that having an independent body to certify and oversee the industry at
the point of manufacturer would nip many of the problems in the bud before
the vans hit the sales floor or the road.
In February 2016 Vehicle Safety Standards published a discussion paper on
reforming the certification process where manufacturers will have to
provide a sample vehicle for approval before sale.
But all that is cold comfort for many unhappy owners who are still out of
pocket and out of options. As Leigh
says, "Having a lemon is an emotional, financial and physical burden that
no consumer should go through if the laws worked properly."
Before you buy an RV or caravan
- Don't buy at the caravan shows – despite how tempting it can be. The
sales people can work on commission and often use high-pressure sales
- Be wary of putting down large deposits – many companies go broke or
'phoenix' into another business and you could end up out of pocket.
- Beware of claims that a manufacturer is accredited. The industry
accredits itself so there's no assurance the quality is any better.
- Know the difference between a full off-road and a semi off-road van. Many
claim to be but are not and there is no industry standard, so this can vary
from manufacturer to manufacturer.
- Check the sales contract thoroughly – ask to take it away so you can do
so. Be prepared to negotiate and ask for things to be deleted if you don't
think they're fair. Things to look out for are essential clauses such as
the maximum permissible ATM (aggregate trailer mass), payload and ball
- Take an independent expert with you to assess the van – a builder,
engineer, plumber or even a welder should be able to spot any obvious
- Request a cooling off period as many vans experience problems
- If you have never owned an RV before, do a towing course. Learning how to
tow and load your RV properly is as important as getting the right RV and
could save your life